Md. dairy farmer is cheering as subsidy gains in Congress

Proposal `looks good, it has my hopes up,' Carroll Countian says

February 15, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The four-year struggle by Maryland farmers to become part of a regional dairy compact is over, but state dairymen are not complaining.

The Senate included an alternative to dairy compacts in the version of the new national farm bill it passed Wednesday. The proposal would make $500 million in subsidies available to dairy farmers in 12 Northern states, including Maryland, when the farm price of Class 1 (drinking) milk drops below $16.94 per hundredweight.

"It looks good, it has my hopes up," said Carroll County dairy farmer Myron Wilhide. "I just hope the bubble doesn't burst before it's approved by the House."

Wilhide said milk pricing involves a complicated formula based on the percentage of Class 1 milk along with lower-priced milk used to make butter, cheese and other dairy products. As a result, he said, the Senate bill would likely guarantee state farmers between $15 and $15.50 per hundredweight.

"This is no windfall," Wilhide said, "but it helps keep prices from falling so low that you fall off the ship.It means the prices won't be down to $12, which they have been during some months in recent years."

While the retail price of milk has risen at grocery stores over the years, Maryland dairy farmers have been receiving just about the same payment for their milk in recent years as they had 20 years ago.

Low milk prices at the farm level have been blamed for a 35 percent decline in the number of Maryland dairy farms since 1991. William Zepp, head of the division of milk control for the Maryland health department, which inspects all commercial dairy operations, said that 41 farms went out of business last year.

Paul S. Weller, executive director of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, said the Senate bill, if enacted, would help halt the demise of state dairy farms. "If a farmer can make money, he will think twice before selling out to developers," he said.

Weller said it would offer encouragement to the younger generation to eventually take over their parents' farms.

"It should have no impact on the price of milk at the grocery store," Weller said, "because the government payment would go directly to the farmer."

He called the Senate bill "an acceptable compromise" to compact legislation, which was opposed by Western and Midwestern states, where a higher percentage of milk is used in making dairy products.

The House version of the farm bill does not have a comparable dairy provision, and the final legislation is to be worked out in conference committee.

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